Are Democrats falling into line?

The cracks within the Democratic Party over Obama’s tax plan may be disappearing

Published July 12, 2012 12:24PM (EDT)

Since President Obama called for ending the Bush tax rates for income over $250,000, Republicans have delighted in pointing to the cracks within his own party.

There has been, for instance, a long-standing difference between the president and some prominent congressional Democrats – including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, the Democrats’ point man on messaging in the Senate -- who have argued for setting the line at $1,000,000. That’s a significant difference; exempting all income under $1,000,000 would net more than 40 percent less in revenue than Obama’s plan.

Then there are the Democrats who have seemed reluctant to let the Bush rates expire for anyone – many of them in the Senate, where the party has only 53 votes to start with. This led Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to attempt a bit of parliamentary mischief on Wednesday morning, calling for an immediate vote on Obama’s proposal. The idea was to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to admit they didn’t have the votes to pass their own president’s plan. And sure enough, Majority Leader Harry Reid found himself batting away McConnell’s call, giving Republicans something to crow about for the next few hours.

But as TPM’s Brian Beutler reports, Reid was apparently able to change the math during the day, allowing him to turn the tables on McConnell:

Reid’s complicated maneuvers on the Senate floor Wednesday night suggest he’s defied the GOP’s expectations and lined up at least 50 members of his caucus to pass Obama’s plan. Caught by surprise, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was forced to block a parallel opportunity for a majority vote on extending all the Bush tax cuts.

As Beutler notes, this still doesn’t mean the Senate will pass Obama’s plan. Even if Reid does have 50 votes, Republicans could, and almost certainly would, kill any attempt to bring it to the floor with a filibuster. And even if Republicans didn’t for some reason filibuster it, a Senate-passed version of Obama’s tax plan would have no chance of clearing the House any time soon, with Republican leaders there poised to hold their own vote on extending all of the Bush rates. This is the dynamic that will prevail at least through November, with each side counting heads for votes that have no official significance.

But what Reid apparently achieved on Wednesday is still important, because it’s another sign that Democrats are closing rank behind Obama’s plan. Already, Pelosi and Schumer have backed off their call for a $1,000,000 ceiling, syncing them up with Obama’s vision.

Whether Democrats are united behind Obama will really matter when the lame duck session convenes after the election. If Obama wins reelection, he will have done so while campaigning on an explicit call to undo the Bush rates for income over $250,000. That would put him in a stronger bargaining position with Republicans as the Dec. 31 expiration date for the Bush rates approaches. The last thing Obama would want then is to be forced into negotiating with his own party over where to draw the line.

Democrats still aren’t fully united around Obama’s $250,000 plan. And some of them, especially those running in red states or red districts this year, may feel campaign season pressure to distance themselves from the president’s position. So it’s hard to say where the Democratic Party will be when the election is over. But from Obama’s standpoint, the initial signs are fairly encouraging.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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